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Preparing for Online Teaching

Web-based assessment and communication skills in K12.
Florida Virtual School instructors are available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week to address student questions and concerns.

Students are doing less hand-raising and more clicking as online classes become increasingly popular in K12 instruction, both in combination with brick-and-mortar classrooms and in independent full-time virtual schools. “It’s exploding,” says Barbara Treacy, director of EdTech Leaders Online, a program of the nonprofit Education Development Center that works with educational organizations to develop online courses and professional development. “What we’re going to see in the future is a spectrum of blended courses, and the rare classroom that is 100 percent face-to-face.” 

Right now, 31 states allow purely online schools, of which about 275,000 students attended in the 2011-2012 school year, according to “Keeping Pace with K12 Online and Blended Learning,” an annual report from the Evergreen Education Group, which works with districts to improve education outcomes through digital learning. And students nationwide are increasingly taking classes online at least part of the time: In the 2011-2012 school year, nearly 620,000 students were enrolled in single online courses in 28 states, an increase of 16 percent from the year before, the report says. 

The numbers of students taking distance education courses (which take place outside a traditional setting, the vast majority occurring online) rose from 45,000 in 2000 to 1.8 million students in the 2009-2010 school year, according to a 2012 report from the International Association for K12 Online Learning (iNACOL). And the impending move to the Common Core State Standards’ computerized assessments is also pushing states to evaluate technology infrastructures, the report states, making way for more online and blended courses. 

Members at a recent District Administration Leadership Institute speak about online teaching at their own districts. Click video to watch.

With online instruction comes a change in the nature of teaching, communicating with and assessing students. As schools move to the online model, administrators must ensure that teachers and students are prepared for the shift.

Access to Advanced Courses, Remediation

Student access to advanced courses is one of the primary reasons district leaders initially made online learning available: In 2010, less than 35 percent of traditional schools offered AP or IB courses, according to the College Board. And about 70 percent of online students are enrolled in core courses because they failed the first time in the classroom setting, or are trying to graduate within four years, iNACOL found. Online classes also provide an option for working or bedridden students, and for those in alternative programs.

In 2008, Jefferson County Public Schools, the largest district in Colorado, began offering online courses statewide for grades 7 through 12 through the district’s 21st Century Virtual Academy. The academy, which is free for Colorado students, increased from 90 students its first year to 816 full- and part-time students this year, including those taking AP courses. “As budget cuts were hitting us, we recognized that a lot of schools can’t offer these smaller courses [in brick-and-mortar facilities] with only four or five students,” says Sherry Meier, assistant director of student online learning at Jefferson County Public Schools.

Learning to Teach Online

More teachers, rookies, and veterans at all experience levels are adapting to an online model, and a growing number of college education programs are offering certificates in online teaching for education majors, according to Susan Patrick, CEO of iNACOL. “Every other sector of the workforce outside of K12 education has moved to a more flexible environment that fits the modern world,” Patrick says.

Online educators must be certified classroom teachers in their state, Patrick says, but there is no nationally required online certification. The average classroom teaching experience of those who transition online is eight years, according to “Going Virtual! 2010,” a Boise State University report on the professional development of K12 online teachers. “The expectation is that younger teachers are more tech savvy, but that’s not the case,” says David Hargis, director of content development at ASCD, which offers online PD programs. “We’re seeing great experimentation by teachers who have been in the field a number of years and want to try something new.”

Teachers need to experience online learning themselves, says Treacy of EdTech Leaders Online, to “use the tools and experience the change in pedagogical design teaching online—the way you interact, the pace of learning, and the opportunities in content.” According to the EdTech Leaders Online training courses, online teachers must:

Establish clear expectations and deadlines. Make sure students understand what work will be expected of them, and the criteria for grading.

Guide students through projects, activities, and problems with carefully crafted directions and timely responses to questions. Project guidelines should be specific, with timelines for project milestones and teacher check-ins.

Be positive, personal, and approachable. Develop a professional but informal online voice, learning how to share personal stories and humor with students to make connections with students so they feel comfortable asking questions and engaging in the course.

Observe how students respond to assignments, and adjust content or facilitation accordingly. Encourage students to reflect and provide feedback on individual assignments and the course overall.

Use questions rather than provide all the answers to foster discussion.

Most virtual academies have a required training program, as many teachers have no prior online experience. For example, Arizona Virtual Academy (AZVA) has an initial teacher training to familiarize new hires with the different online programs. “Most come from other districts, and they might be a phenomenal classroom teacher—we just need to give them the tools and training to engage that online,” says Cindy Wright, the head of school. AZVA has 5,500 students (up from 1,000 in the 2004-2005 school year) and 151 teachers. “The delivery method is different, but good teaching is good teaching,” Wright adds.

Online Transformations

Teachers must transform their classroom skills to the virtual medium by adjusting curriculum to combine text-based and multimedia material, Treacy says. Instead of searching for raised hands, they can use course management systems such as Blackboard or Schoology to collect student participation data throughout a course, including discussion comments and time spent on each lesson.

Online teachers must also learn to resolve basic technical problems that arise for students, such as wireless connection issues, and consistently check web tools and links in lessons.

Assessment strategies also differ, Treacy says, and teachers must learn how hey will know students are learning, be it via projects, tests, quizzes, or discussions in which students respond to questions posed by the teacher or other students. Inaddition, online teachers must communicate concisely in writing to students, more so than classroom teachers who primarily present content through lectures, when monitoring discussion boards and critiquing student writing.

And online teachers must become adept at moving between content areas, as students in many virtual academies can start courses at any point in the year. “Just because it’s the third week in September doesn’t mean you’re only teaching the fall of the Roman Empire,” says Beth Miller, senior manager for professional learning at Florida Virtual School (FLVS), the nation’s largest state virtual school with 148,000 students enrolled in 2011-2012, and which is free for Florida residents.

“You’re teaching all of history, all the time. It’s a real mental shift for teachers.” Teachers learn to multitask with support from a professional learning specialist, an instructional leader, and adjuncts who assist with grading, Miller adds.

The schedule is also a shift: at FLVS, teachers are available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week—but they aren’t sitting at a desk all day, says FLVS communications specialist Tania Clow. Their typical day might include grading papers, preparing the virtual grade book (which parents and students can access to view progress), and replying to student questions via email, phone, or instant message. Teachers also set offce hours and times to give students one-on-one attention when needed, and often choose their schedules based on when most students are online.

Requiring Online to Graduate

The number of states that require students to take online courses is also growing: Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, and Virginia have passed such legislation. For example, the Florida Digital Learning Now Act, enacted last year, requires all high school students to take at least one online course as a graduation requirement. At Miami-Dade Public Schools, these courses are scheduled into students’ days, and are taken in a computer lab at each high school.

“We found that the transition forkids was tough,” especially for struggling learners, who not only need more time to understand concepts, but more teacher support, says Sylvia Diaz, administrative director of instructional technology at Miami-Dade. Though the online teachers are always available, these students had trouble navigating the online medium for the first time and knowing when to reach out for help, especially in core classes.

When given the choice, administrators should examine both staff and student interest and willingness to take part in online learning before implementing classes, says David Hargis, director of content development at ASCD.

“Don’t assume that just because you’re doing something online, it’s going to make kids learn,” he adds. “You have to think about what’s applicable and engaging for all students.”

The future of online learning will likely be in blended models that combine some classroom and some online instruction, says Lisa Collins, senior director of instructional services at K12, Inc., an online course provider.

“We need to keep up with the world of work skills, because so many of our job experiences are moving to virtual communication mechanisms, and students should be prepared,” she adds. “It’s about being able to provide a more robust, individualized experience for them.”